A young servant girl desperate to learn. An ambitious philosopher in search of the truth. A woman's story lost from history. Set against the backdrop of the Scientific Revolution in 17th century Amsterdam, a time of change but also of great danger, THE WORDS IN MY HAND is a debut novel of harrowing beauty.
THE WORDS IN MY HAND is the re-imagined true story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid in 17th-century Amsterdam, who works for Mr Sergeant the English bookseller. When a mysterious and reclusive lodger arrives - the Monsieur - Mr Sergeant insists everything must be just so. It transpires that the Monsieur is Rene Descartes.
But this is Helena's story: the woman in front of Descartes, a young woman who yearns for knowledge, who wants to write so badly she makes ink from beetroot and writes in secret on her skin - only to be held back by her position in society.
Weaving together the story of Descartes' quest for reason with Helena's struggle for literacy, their worlds overlap as their feelings deepen; yet remain sharply divided. For all Descartes' learning, it is Helena he seeks out as she reveals the surprise in the everyday world that surrounds him.
When reputation is everything and with so much to lose, some truths must remain hidden. Helena and Descartes face a terrible tragedy and ultimately have to decide if their love is possible at all.
Excellent... The novel is based on enigmatic references to Helena and her illegitimate child in biographies of Descartes - she is the unseen woman behind the great man. Glasfurd has created an entirely unsentimental love story, with a memorable and engaging heroine. She takes the narrowness of Helena's life and her kicks against its confines, and spins them into an original tale. - The Times (Book of the Month)
a striking debut... her portrait of love across barriers of class, and of Helena's yearning for education, is a touching one - The Sunday Times
Amsterdam in the 17th Century springs to life in The Words in My Hand...This first novel from Guinevere Glasfurd is wonderfully atmospheric - Good Housekeeping (Ones To Watch)
This is a fascinating book fleshing out the life of a real woman and her story; it brings to vivid life the frustrations of women who were denied access to education and art. In an age when reputation meant everything and to be different often meant to be beaten down, Helena stands as an icon facing challenges as desperate as those faced by Descartes. Despite this, Glasfurd is honest about the reality of their unequal relationship as Helena must regularly take second place. Fans of The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Miniaturist will love this tale - Historical Novel Society
A gloriously readable and emotional fictional tale based on the relationship between Dutch maid Helena Jans van der Strom and philosopher, mathematician and scientist Rene Descartes, in 17th century Amsterdam. Helena tells her own story, and we have intimate access to her thoughts and feelings as she learns the magic of words, writing and thinking beyond the obvious. It feels as though Guinevere Glasfurd has seen into the heart and soul of Helena, as though this really could be her story. The author also has the gift of shaping the outside world, of painting a vivid picture of life in these times. Sending thoughts skittering down unexpected paths and opening up the world of Descartes, The Words In My Hand is a truly lovely and captivating debut. - LoveReading (January Debut of the Month)
Guinevere Glasfurd is a critically acclaimed novelist. Her debut novel, The Words in my Hand, was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa First Novel Award and Authors' Club Best First Novel Award and was longlisted in France for the Prix du Roman FNAC. Her second novel, The Year Without Summer, was written with support from the MacDowell Foundation, longlisted for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize 2021 and shortlisted for the HWA Gold Crown Award 2020. Awarded grants from the Arts Council England and the British Council for her work, her writing has also appeared in The Scotsman, Mslexia and in a collection published by the National Galleries of Scotland. Originally from Lancaster, she now lives near Cambridge with her husband and daughter.